Text messaging has amazing potential to call citizens to action. In the right circumstances, charities and non-profits have had astounding success amplifying the voice and generosity of individuals. However, all is not well in the land of text messaging. Cell phone carriers have stepped forward to claim that they have veto power over every text message sent in America, and the FCC has still not acted on Public Knowledge’s 2007 petition to ban discrimination or censorship of text messages.
As the New York Times publishes an article on the “flawed system” that stifles charitable giving via text, and the National Hispanic Media Coalition (NHMC) comes forward to demand that the FCC put an end to wireless carriers’ “increasingly bold actions to limit free speech on their networks,” the question remains: FCC, what are you waiting for?
If the FCC is unaware of the incredible potential of text messaging for social good, they have been asleep at the wheel. Reform Immigration for America used its “Text Justice” campaign to mobilize “over 500,000 people in 30 states” to rally for immigration reform.
The incredible power of text messaging campaigns to raise money is equally well established. In the wake of the Haiti earthquake this January, the Red Cross raised over $30 million for relief efforts via text message in just 10 days. Across the globe, text messaging has been used for cholera education in Haiti, election monitoring in Montenegro, and political protest coordination in Iran.
Unfortunately, American cell phone carriers are not content with merely passing messages between phones, as they do with telephone calls. The wireless industry does not allow organizations to use a regular phone number to send text messages to the public; they must lease a “short code”, a special number that can be revoked or blocked by a carrier at any time. The first omen of things to come was Verizon’s 2007 refusal to grant a short code to NARAL, a pro-choice advocacy group. Verizon characterized the messages calling on NARAL supporters to contact congress as “controversial or unsavory” and claimed that it “did not accept issue-oriented programs.” Fortunately Verizon relented in the face of media attention and charges of discriminatory treatment. Catholic Relief Services had their Haiti campaign shut down by Sprint earlier this year. Carriers are adamant that they have every right to block messages that they disagree with, and until the FCC acts, they will continue to act as censors.
How can a group get a carrier to restore its text messaging access once it’s gone? So far, the answer appears to be filing a lawsuit or a getting a story in the New York Times. For most nonprofits a lawsuit against a deep-pocketed carrier is a nightmare. And what charity wants to waste a front page New York Times story on a dispute over texting, rather than a profile of its contributions to society? A public relations battle with AT&T, the country’s second biggest advertiser, is probably not a good use of donor money.
Organizations that manage to dodge censorship have merely overcome one obstacle. As the New York Times article explains, even if their messages get through, many nonprofits find that “there are still too many barriers to doing successful cellphone fund-raising.” To quote the Mobile Giving Foundation: “When a qualified NPO has selected an approved ASP, two contractual agreements will be made; one between the NPO and the ASP, and the other between the NPO and the MGF.” Alphabet soup aside, the gist is that non-profits must first have their campaign approved by the wireless industry, and then must pick a wireless industry-approved company to carry out the campaign. Each change in the campaign requires a new round of approval from everyone involved. The requirements for approval are nebulous, applied haphazardly, and subject to change at any time. Non-profits do not need to retain telecommunications lawyers to call supporters, and the same should go for text messaging.
In addition to a convoluted approval process, the costs of running a text campaign are often prohibitive. The fees start as soon as a non-profit applies for approval, and they continue to mount. Non-profits must pay for an application to a mobile charitable umbrella organization, pay separate fees for services rendered, and then owe a transaction fee as well as a percentage of each donation. The costs of applying for and running a campaign can quickly reach into the tens of thousands of dollars. The potential benefit of a campaign is also severely hampered by the wireless industry’s decision to limit donations a maximum of $10; the cost for reaching each donor needs to be minute when the maximum payoff is $10.
At every turn, getting donations or mobilizing the disenfranchised is made cumbersome and expensive. Public Knowledge’s petition is simply common sense. Cell phone companies don’t get to decide who you can call from your phone, and the texts you send are equally not their business. The FCC needs to stop sitting on its hands before the promise of a connected and engaged citizenry is crushed in its infancy. It’s been three years, FCC; what are you waiting for?